Pixel by pixel, they built `Shrek'


Md. natives' skills make the Land of Far Far Away look more realistic

Spotlight on: Larry Cutler and Jimmy Maidens

May 18, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

When the Gingerbread Man's life flashes before his eyes in Shrek the Third, and icing covers the scars where Lord Farquaad tortured him in Shrek, you're savoring the craft of Larry Cutler, a former Marylander.

When thousands of baby Shreks invade the ogre's hovel and somehow look right at home there - that's partly due to the eye of another former Marylander, Jimmy Maidens.

Cutler and Maidens belong to the PDI/DreamWorks Animation empire, based in Redwood City, Calif., that has turned the Shrek series into an international phenomenon. They took different routes to where they are today and practice separate but complementary skill sets.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect material supplied by Paramount and DreamWorks, a photo in yesterday's Movies Today section that was said to identify animation technician Jimmy Maidens did not depict Maidens. His photo appears below.
The Sun regrets the error.

Cutler enables animators to do subtle nips and pulls with characters. Of the Gingerbread Man's scar, he says, "We wanted to be very careful that, in his flashbacks, his legs were whole when they should be whole, and after they were broken there'd be a nice sweet coating where they healed."

A resident of San Francisco, Cutler, 35, has now lived almost as long in Northern California as he did in Maryland. He grew up in Potomac, the third generation of his family in Montgomery County. He attended Churchill High School and then studied computer science at Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. - and succumbed to the siren call of the San Francisco Bay area.

Cutler landed his first assignments as a technical director at Pixar (his credits there include A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc. and Toy Story 2). With consummate bad timing, he left Pixar in 2000 to help form a social-network start-up "right after the Internet bubble burst, right before the computer social-networking craze took off."

But after this venture went belly up he landed on his feet at PDI/DreamWorks and served as the "co-supervising character technical director" on Shrek 2 and now Shrek the Third.

Maidens, another 35-year-old living in San Francisco, also hails from Montgomery County. He attended Montgomery College and, for two years, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he studied art in general and digital art in particular.

He lived in Baltimore City for eight or nine years - he loved (and still loves) the music and art scenes in town - but later found a comfortable home in Boring, in Baltimore County.

While employed as a multimedia artist at an educational software company, he began posting cartoony 3-D images on his own Web site. That caught the attention of talent scouts at PDI/DreamWorks, who brought him to Redwood City and put him to work on Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third.

Cutler started out as an aspiring actor and was a member of the Showstoppers choral group at Churchill High; he also performed at Wildwood Summer Theater and Montgomery County Dinner Theater. Putting together cartoon characters requires equal amounts of acting and draftsmanship: Character animators often operate with mirrors next to their pads or keyboards, miming expressions they hope to capture in lines or pixels.

As a character technical director supervisor, Cutler oversees the teams that give character animators their tools. His crews develop skeletal computer puppets that serve as the basis for Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and the gang. Then they provide computer "strings," or controls, to maneuver them and devise "deformations" that include the skin, hair and clothing that particularize each digital marionette.

Cutler says tweaking the deformations takes up the bulk of his time and provides most of the punch lines. The summit of his teams' achievement in Shrek the Third is the scene of court dressers packing Shrek and Fiona into ornate costumes for a palace gala.

The challenge was so formidable, Cutler says, "we ended up rebuilding Shrek and Fiona from scratch."

When the director and animators called for the endomorphic Shrek to suck in his belly, Cutler and his collaborators "had to create a whole separate body variation." At the same time, they had to ensure that Shrek would "still look like Shrek."

Maidens never expected to wind up where he did, but in some ways he followed a more direct line than Cutler into his field. He grew up with computer-savvy parents (his mother was a programmer) and thought it was natural to start creating art with keystrokes.

To understand what he does as a lighter, he says, "Imagine you walk into a room and there are no lights even in there; a lighter is the guy who starts putting the lights in."

But a lighter must be creative enough to clarify and embellish the crucial elements that the art director and production designer build into their scenes.

The goal isn't just "to make light operate sort of the way it does in reality," says Maidens, but also to use subtle "cheats," like "putting shadows where they'd never be" so "the image as a whole looks better."

The infant-ogre scenes tested his visual sensitivity and ingenuity: "You wanted to catch the way the light hits the floor or different objects and bounces off the babies: It makes everything look more realistic."

Maidens has just received a promotion: He'll be a lead lighter on the next PDI/DreamWorks production. And he's happy with his work. "Even with my own stuff, everything I did was to get that final image out. I was happiest when I was tweaking and rendering the final image."

As for Cutler, he's looking forward to a couple of immediate events: Today's opening of Shrek the Third and the birth of his first child - also due this weekend. "I feel I'm reliving the Shrek saga," he says jokingly. "A couple of years ago, me and my wife were getting married, and now we're having a kid."


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